Lessons in Leadership from Colleen Barrett: A Legacy of Heart and Excellence

#leadership 2024 blog May 20, 2024

In the world of business, few leaders have left as indelible a mark as Colleen Barrett, former President of Southwest Airlines. Known for her unparalleled commitment to employee well-being and customer satisfaction, Colleen's leadership style has become a benchmark for many aspiring leaders. Her lessons in leadership resonate profoundly with those who seek to make a difference in their workplace.

Drawing from over 25 years of personal experience at Southwest Airlines in various departments such as operations, people, and marketing, I can attest that Colleen Barrett's influence was omnipresent. Whether I was hiring employees, planning new city launches, or creating marketing initiatives, her "voice" was a guiding force. The principles she lived by were not just theoretical; they were put into practice by all of us, shaping the culture and success of Southwest Airlines. Here are some of the most impactful lessons she imparted on me from my perspective:

1. Work with Excellence

Colleen believed that excellence should be infused into every task, no matter how small. Whether it was a handwritten note or a meticulously typed email, she emphasized the importance of well-constructed sentences and correct spelling. She even created her own dictionary for internal communications, where 'Employees' and 'Customers' were always spelled with capital letters. This attention to detail wasn't just about perfectionism; it was about showing respect and care for the people you’re communicating with.

2. Timely Communication

Colleen also stressed the importance of timely communication. She believed that keeping employees and customers informed was fundamental to building trust and ensuring smooth operations. Whether it was good news or bad, Colleen championed transparency and the prompt dissemination of information. This philosophy not only helped manage expectations but also fostered a culture of openness and reliability. 

3. Know Your People

Colleen had an incredible knack for making everyone feel special. She took the time to know her employees and their families, sending personalized gifts on significant occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, and Christmas. This personal touch fostered a culture of care and loyalty, making employees feel valued beyond their professional contributions. In the 25 years I was at Southwest Airlines, there was not a year that went by without a birthday card, anniversary gift and a Christmas gift. Sometimes, she even sent something for our whole family.

4. It's Not About You

Colleen epitomized humility and selflessness in leadership. She shunned the limelight, preferring to focus on others. Her authenticity and genuine care for her people made her an incredibly effective leader. She believed in equity and inclusion long before these became corporate buzzwords, spending countless hours advocating for underrepresented employees. Her leadership was about living the "Golden Rule" both at work and at home, ensuring that every employee felt seen and valued.

5. Celebrate Everything

Colleen believed in working hard but also in celebrating hard. Whether it was recognizing the department of the year or sending personal notes of appreciation, she made sure that efforts were acknowledged, even if the outcomes weren't perfect. She spearheaded the creation of special company anniversary logos and merchandise, planning celebrations a year in advance. These gestures made employees feel like an integral part of the company's journey, fostering a sense of pride and belonging.

6. Be Present

Colleen was a firm believer in being where your people are. We regularly visited different locations, getting to know employees and understanding their needs. We learned that our involvement wasn't just symbolic; we were encouraged to cook for mechanics on night shifts, throw bags with ground staff, and work Customer Service for a day. This hands-on approach ensured that employees felt connected and supported, regardless of their role or location.

7. Internal Marketing

One of my heart passions, inspired by Colleen, was the idea of internal marketing. Every major external marketing campaign had an internal counterpart, ensuring that our employees knew what was happening and why. From "Friends Fly Free" to "Bags Fly Free," we created mini campaigns that went out ahead of the public launch. This practice made employees feel like they had ownership of the brand, extending their enthusiasm to customers both in the air and on the ground.

8. Humble Learning

Colleen didn't care about credentials or what others thought of her. If she needed to know something, she would humbly learn it or surround herself with experts who did. This humility and willingness to learn made her a relatable and effective leader, always focused on the betterment of her team and the company, but not afraid to speak up when something was a little "off."

Colleen Barrett’s Legacy

Colleen Barrett became President of Southwest Airlines in 2001 and served until 2008, later becoming President Emeritus. She passed away on May 8, 2024, at the age of 79, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire. Her unwavering belief in taking care of people first made Southwest Airlines not just a company, but a community. She was also a passionate advocate for giving back, ensuring that Southwest supported causes like Ronald McDonald House Charities.

It's All About Engagement

Colleen Barrett's leadership lessons are timeless and universally relevant. Her emphasis on excellence, timely communication, personal connection, humility, celebration, presence, internal marketing, and continuous learning fostered a culture of care and high performance. For leaders striving to make a meaningful impact, her principles serve as a blueprint to not only achieve success but also to inspire and uplift those around them.

As we navigate today’s complex business landscape, let's embrace Colleen's legacy of heart and excellence. By doing so, we can create workplaces where people feel valued, motivated, and poised to accomplish great things. As a leader, what legacy will you leave behind?

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